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The former columnist has seen it all, and then some, covering the Redskins
In the first installment, former columnist Paul Woody shares stories from four decades of covering the Redskins, college
hoops and more.
A Sunday night NFL game filled with foolishness, ineptness, drama and head-banging plays led to a lot of head scratching.
In November of 1997, the New York Giants came to FedEx Field for a game against the Washington Redskins. Neither team was setting the league afire.
Norv Turner was the Redskins’ head coach. Gus Frerotte was Washington’s quarterback, and apparently, felt he was much maligned for his fairly inconsistent performances.
On this night, Frerotte’s frustration overflowed. Near the end of the first half, he ran into the end zone for a touchdown. Generally, that makes players happy.
This one seemed to have the opposite effect on Frerotte.
He stopped to spike the ball angrily to the ground and then ran until the confines of the stadium dictated, he could run no more.
At that point, he began banging his head against the stadium wall.
It was quite the sight. Frerotte’s actions did not come without consequences. He suffered a sprained neck and could not play the rest of the night.
Later that same night, the Redskins were driving for what seemed to be the game-winning field goal in a game everyone watching just wanted to see come to an end.
Wide receiver Michael Westbrook made a catch near the sidelines, only to be ruled out of bounds by the officials.
Westbrook disagreed. He tore his helmet from his head and smashed it to the ground.
Penalty flags flew. The Redskins lost 15 yards for Westbrook’s unsportsmanlike conduct and were taken out of field goal range.
The game went into overtime. It ended in a 7-7 tie, which is not easy to do.
The action between the lines was not memorable. What was said afterward never will be forgotten.
“I never thought I would have to tell someone not to bang his head against the wall,” Turner said in his postgame press conference.
A fair point.
In his 15th NFL season, Redskins future Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green had seen many things in his career, but that Sunday night left him thinking there now was just one thing left to see in an NFL game.
“I guess if I play long enough,” he said, “I’ll see a deer run across the field.”
Several years later, Joe Gibbs — in his second era as the Redskins’ head coach — was holding a post-practice press conference. As he talked, several deer ambled across the field.
Green, however, had long since retired.
Over the course of a long career, the games tend to blend together. In a 16-game NFL regular season, Games 8-12 tend to get lost in some sort of cosmic mist. During the interminable college basketball season, nonconference games in November and December lose all significance. Many had little significance when they were played.
From the first jump ball of the season until the last basket of conference tournaments, only one thing matters in college basketball. Is the team going to make the NCAA tournament?
Those are the games that count. Those are the games you remember.
To pick one memorable game is not possible. In my career, it has to be three: VCUKansas in the 2011 Southwest Region championship game in San Antonio; and Virginia’s two games in the 2019 Final Four in Minneapolis — against Auburn in the semifinals and Texas Tech in the championship game.
VCU was on a magical run in 2011. The Rams, then members of the Colonial Athletic Association, were one of the last teams selected for the field and were sent to Dayton for a play-in game against Southern Cal. The Rams then easily dispatched Georgetown and Purdue before gaining a last-second victory over Florida State.
If you’re keeping score at home, VCU had throttled opponents from the Pac 12, Big East, Big Ten and ACC, all home of basketball elites.
Then came Kansas, a No. 1 seed, deep, confident and a potential national champion.
I remember two things vividly from that Southwest Region championship game.
First, Brandon Rozzell dropped in several 3-pointers early in the game that he seemed to have shot more from Kansas than against Kansas.
VCU built a substantial lead. Kansas came back, and the Jayhawks were on the verge of going from having momentum to taking control of the game.
VCU needed a bucket. Joey Rodriguez, VCU’s senior point guard, had the ball at the top of the key. Rodriguez’ previous shot had been an airball from the left corner.
No way he shoots now, I thought.
Rodriguez shot. Nothing but net. Kansas’ run was stopped. VCU was on its way to the Final Four.
The Virginia-Auburn game can be summed up in four words: Kyle Guy’s free throws.
Fouled as he attempted a 3-point shot from the left corner, with Virginia trailing by 2, Guy went to the foul line with .6 seconds left in the game.
All that was at stake was the season, a chance to play for the national championship and career-defining shots.
Guy made the first two. Auburn called a timeout. Guy made it clear he wanted his coaches and teammates to leave him alone. Then, he walked back to the line and made the third free throw.
That put Virginia in the championship game against Texas Tech.
Virginia led at halftime and surged to a double-digit lead in the second half.
Hail to the Cavaliers!
Texas Tech rallied and led by three with 12.9 seconds left. The Cavaliers were not so hail.
Then, Virginia’s De’Andre Hall, who had scored 5 points in the first half, hit a 3-pointer from the right wing for his 17th point of the second half to force overtime.
In OT, Virginia led, trailed, trailed, trailed and then gained a lead it would not relinquish.
After watching the 2018 tournament — in which Virginia became the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed, University of Maryland Baltimore County — this was a rather fantastical ending to the 2019 season.
Joe Gibbs can fill your notebook and tape recorder with clichés. He can be the master of saying plenty while carefully and purposefully saying nothing.
But if you’ve known him for a while, and if he trusts you, he’ll show you a side most don’t get to see.
Gibbs has a self-deprecating sense of humor.
And as an NFL coach, he had a clear realization of what he had to do to keep his job.
It was that simple.
In 1985, the team got off to a slow start. Four games into the season with a 1-3 record, Gibbs tried to jolt the team into urgency by releasing several players.
The team didn’t respond as he hoped.
So, he went back to what he knew best, pad-crushing, bonejarring physical practices on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
When things began to turn around — the Redskins finished 10-6 but didn’t make the playoffs — Gibbs turned pensive after practice one day. He started talking about how he had made the mistake of trying the nurse the team through the regular season and get to the playoffs. He said he realized that was a mistake and the team had to get back to what had gotten them to two Super Bowls, physical practices.
A number of us had known Gibbs for a while. One of us, me, actually, started asking Gibbs questions, all of which began with, “Hypothetically speaking ...” such as, “Hypothetically speaking, if there was a coach who misjudged how to get through a season, hypothetically speaking, and things started to fall apart, hypothetically speaking, would you think, hypothetically speaking, that coach would get fir- ...”
I didn’t finish that sentence because Gibbs had, not hypothetically but quite playfully, put his hands around my neck. Gibbs can take a joke.
Then there was the postpractice interview session during Gibbs’ second tenure
as the Redskins’ head coach. The 49ers were next up, in San Francisco, and Clifton Brown, NFL writer for The Sporting News, asked Gibbs if he’d ever won in San Francisco.
“I don’t know,” Gibbs said. “You’d have to ask him.”
And Gibbs nodded toward me. By then, I was the only writer left who had been through every season of Gibbs’ time with the Redskins, starting in 1981.
“No, he hasn’t,” I said.
Gibbs shook his head, looked at Brown and said, “See what I have to put up with?”
Hey, you asked. I saw all those games. Was I supposed to say, “Nobody plays the 49ers the way Joe Gibbs’ Redskins play the 49ers”?
Gibbs, of course, has gained equal fame as the owner of a NASCAR team. His drivers have won multiple championships. Gibbs follows the same formula in racing as he did in football: Get the best people, get the best sponsors, which means getting the most money, and set expectations high.
In 2010, JGR came to thenRichmond International Raceway, now Richmond Raceway, and took first (Denny Hamlin), second (Kyle Busch) and fourth (Joey Logano).
On his way out of the media room after the postrace press conference, Gibbs stopped at my seat and said, “What do you think of that?”
I said, “Is that the best you can do? Why didn’t you go 1-23? Do you think if you spent less time in Logano’s pit, he might drive better?”
Nobody laughed harder than Gibbs.
When Gibbs coached football, he once said the players wanted two things more than anything else: more money and days off.
“I can’t give them more money,” Gibbs said. “But I can give them days off.”
He almost always gave the team Mondays off after a victory on Sunday.
He also gave his players something else — the confidence to know he had their backs on and off the field. The players respected Gibbs, feared him, liked him, admired him, understood he ran the show and that he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
The players knew repeated mistakes, especially making the same mistake over and over, would cost them their jobs. They also knew that one mistake, such as losing a physical battle to a superior player, would get them word of encouragement and a thank you for the effort from Gibbs.
Here’s how I know that.
The Redskins had lost a close game in Philadelphia on a Sunday afternoon late in the season. The game had come down to the final play. The Redskins needed a touchdown and were inside the Eagles’ 5-yard line. Mark Rypien was the quarterback, and he tried to throw a quick pass into the front of the end zone to, I think, Ricky Sanders.
But Reggie White, one of the great defensive ends in NFL history, broke through the line, pressured Rypien into throwing early, the pass was incomplete and the Eagles won.
Late the next afternoon at Redskin Park, three of us were standing outside the locker room, waiting, I suppose as we always were, for one player or another to come out and say little or nothing, when Gibbs walked by.
He stopped to chat.
After a couple of minutes, one of us — not me this time — said, “Hey, what happened on that last play yesterday?”
Gibbs borrowed one of our notebooks and a pen, mine I think, and started drawing the play. One of the blockers was supposed to have gotten on White’s inside shoulder and driven him to the outside. But White was too quick, was through the line almost before the blocker could move and went straight at Rypien.
One of us — not me this time — said in an “Oh, I understand now” sort of way, “So, it was his fault,” and he said the player’s name.
Gibbs’ eyebrows arched, and there was an ever so slight edge in his voice as he said, “We’re assigning blame now?”
Gibbs always knew a coach needed good players to win. He also knew one of the most important things he could convey to the players was they won and lost as a team.
Yeah, you think watching a quarterback sprain his neck by banging his head into the wall after scoring a touchdown is crazy.
Silly for sure. But maybe the craziest thing I’ve seen in an NFL game came several years before Frerotte made his memory.
Things were going terribly for the Redskins in 1993. Gibbs had retired late in the previous offseason, and defensive coordinator Richie Petitbon had been promoted to head coach. The Redskins had all kinds of injury and salary cap problems. Petitbon couldn’t settle on a quarterback, and the Redskins went from being a veteran team to being an old team very, very quickly.
On Saturday, Dec. 11, the New York Jets came to RFK Stadium. The Jets were on their way to an 8-8 season. The Redskins would finish 4-12.
The game had all the makings of a non-classic — two teams going nowhere with one, the Redskins, destined to fire the head coach and start a seemingly never-ending rebuilding process.
It wasn’t a bitterly cold day, 43 degrees for the 12:30 p.m. kickoff. But the wind was moving at 20 miles per hour, the press box at RFK was open air (it had no windows) and it made for a raw, bone-chilling afternoon.
The Jets scored on a 45-yard field goal by Cary Blanchard in the first quarter.
And that was it for the scoring, until ...
Late in the game, the Jets drove deep into Redskins territory. The drive stalled. Blanchard came on to attempt a field goal that was little more than an extra point. His holder was Louie Aguiar, also the Jets’ punter.
The teams lined up. Aguiar crouched and had his head down, looking at the spot where he knew Blanchard wanted the ball held.
Suddenly, it appeared out of nowhere. Actually, the center had snapped it, which came as a surprise to Aguiar. He had yet to look up from the spot he was eyeing. Then, the ball drilled him in the side of his helmet.
Haven’t seen anything like that since.
Travel is a big part of the sports writing business. And it’s not such a bad part. But hey, it’s not all nice restaurants with fresh seafood in San Diego or Miami or white chocolate bread pudding in New Orleans.
Nope, going on the road is full of hazards. First, you gotta go to the games. Readers want it. Editors demand it. Editors can be so inflexible sometimes.
Then, you’ve got to burn off all the calories from all those meals.
I was a runner. It led to a few adventures.
I got lost while running in Green Bay on a Monday morning after a Sunday game. You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to get around in downtown Green Bay. But if you don’t keep track of all your turns, you end up seeing places on your way back to the hotel you hadn’t seen on your way from the hotel.
I remember thinking I was going to miss my plane and have some explaining to do. Somehow, I found the turn
I’d missed and didn’t miss my flight.
I got lost in New Orleans, twice, and in Miami and Buffalo. In Buffalo, I was so turned around that when I saw a police car at a stoplight, I asked the officer how to get back to my hotel. He started to explain, but it was so complicated he said, “It will be easier if I just take you there.”
Nice guy. Gave me advice on some good restaurants in town.
Sometimes getting lost isn’t the worst thing that can happen.
Lost a rental car once. Now that’s not easy.
It was in Pontiac, Mich., when the Detroit Lions played at the Silverdome.
Pontiac is not conveniently located to the Detroit airport. You had a choice to make. Stay in the hotel in the airport, get up early and drive the hour or so to the game and the hour or so back after the game.
Or, stay near Pontiac and take your chances on the hour or so drive to the airport, in rush-hour traffic, on Monday morning. Come close to missing your plane out of Detroit once, and you’ll not make the mistake of staying near Pontiac again.
On this trip, Jim Ducibella — my good friend and colleague from the Virginian Pilot — and I opted to stay at the airport.
On game day, we left early, beat the traffic, reached the stadium and pulled into a parking spot that was about 20 yards from the press gate. That never happens. We couldn’t believe our good fortune, which, we told each other several times, was a result of our excellent planning.
After the game, we went to the car. There was a problem.
The car wasn’t there. It’s a long walk or an expensive cab ride to the Detroit airport from Pontiac. Worse yet, I’d rented the car. I was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
We looked around, wondering if we were confused and had parked elsewhere.
I’m in a constant state of confusion, but we still didn’t find the car.
We went to the security desk in the stadium and said something like, uh, we had a car when we arrived and now, we have no car.
The guard asked where we’d parked. We told him. Oh, he said, just before the game ends, they tow those cars out of there so no one gets blocked in.
Good to know. Would have been better to know about eight hours earlier, knowledge being power and all that.
But at least we could get the car now.
Or could we?
The security guard wasn’t sure where the towed cars were taken.
This seemed a critical piece of information and a breakdown in communications, knowledge being power and all that.
A few minutes later, we were in the security unit’s SUV, driving around the stadium parking lot, looking for a rental car. We drove around and around. We drove behind snowbanks. I think that’s where we finally found the car, parked behind a snowbank.
Ah, good times.
If you’re going to a football game, college or pro, the best place to go is Pasadena, Calif., for a game in the Rose Bowl. Pick a game, any game, and go. You’re not going for the game. You’re going for the atmosphere.
As they say about expensive restaurants, you can’t eat the atmosphere. But at the Rose Bowl, you can drink it in. The setting is magnificent. The Rose Bowl has 91,000 seats, but the rows are so deep, the stadium doesn’t feel that big.
And this lovely bowl of a stadium sits in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains. The view is almost breathtaking.
I haven’t been there many times, but it made an indelible impression.
The No. 2 venue would be Jack Murphy or Qualcomm or SDCCU (San Diego County Credit Union, now there’s a lyrical name for a venue) Stadium or whatever they’re calling the stadium in San Diego now.
It always should be Jack Murphy Stadium because Jack Murphy was a sports writer who was instrumental in getting the place built.
The stadium is OK, but you don’t go to San Diego for the stadium. You go for the perfect weather, for the fresh seafood, for the zoo, for the easy-to-use mass transit, and did I mention the weather? Every time I’ve been there, the weather has been perfect. Sunny. No humidity. The weather is so good it seems to put a little giddyup in your endorphins and get your biorhythms thumping on all cylinders.
With weather like that, you don’t care if you your rental car is parked behind a snowbank somewhere in the parking lot of a stadium in Pontiac, Mich.
Kyle Guy’s three free throws in the final second against Auburn last April put the UVA basketball team in the national championship game. They also set the stage for another unforgettable game against Texas Tech and helped the Cavaliers find redemption after they were ousted in the first round of the 2018 NCAA tournament.
Brandon Rozzell was congratulated by his father, Michael, and his grandmother, Connie Samuels, following VCU’s victory over top-seeded Kansas in the 2011 Southwest Region final. On his 22nd birthday, Rozzell played a major role in the upset with his outside shooting in the first half.
Redskins quarterback Gus Frerotte eluded Giants defensive lineman Greg Bishop for a touchdown late in the first half of their NFC East matchup on Nov. 23, 1997. A few seconds later, however, Frerotte lost his battle with a stadium wall at FedEx Field.
NASCAR team owner Joe Gibbs admired a fan’s Washington Redskins cap before last spring’s Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond Raceway. During his decades covering sports, columnist Paul Woody saw Gibbs claim championships as Redskins coach and in NASCAR’s top series.
Paul Woody argues that any game in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., is a must-see event.
Janet and Paul Woody took a bow in January when Woody retired following four decades at the Times-Dispatch and News Leader.